Julia Olson is executive director of Our Children's Trust and works with attorneys, scientists, filmmakers, and youth to secure science-based climate recovery plans to return CO2 levels to 350 ppm, under the Public Trust Doctrine. She is a mother, a lawyer, and a professor.
When you walk out of the Alaska Airlines hangar in Barrow in October, it’s cold, the ground is white, the sky is usually grey, and it’s flat. Nearly all of the buildings are on pilings or stilts because of the soggy permafrost when it warms, the roads are unpaved gravel under the ice and snow, and the only other things breaking up the vast landscape are the Arctic Ocean and the occasional snow covered lagoon. To my eyes, it was stark. But I was looking forward to spending a few days with my cousin, who happens to be teaching English at Ilisagvik College here for the past two years.
I got the twilight tour from my cousin-in-law right when I arrived. It didn’t take long to circumnavigate this town of fewer than 5000 people and drive a short distance north to the Inupiat hunting huts, where the bloodstains of recently harvested bowhead whales marred the white landscape. Gulls flocked to find remnants of whale blubber, called maktak, and 50 yards away, the ocean gently rocked against the course black sandy shoreline, which is not much of a beach anymore with the rising waters from warming oceans and melting ice. What elders say used to stretch many yards out, consistent with old photos, is now a narrow strip of black sand.
I spent the night with my cousins and their newly adopted and retired sled-dog Sisuaq (which means beluga), in the home it took them seven months to secure because of the dearth of housing in Barrow. Sisuaq’s thick white coat smells of the whale blubber and meat she has grown up eating. And though she has spent her life outside finding shelter only inside wooden kennels over snow like the other dogs (qimmiq), in a matter of weeks she has decided the warm indoor life of humans is perfectly acceptable. She’ll still spend her days outdoors to grow her warm winter coat, but her story is a perfect allegory to our species as well. We so quickly become accustomed to comforts, which we don’t necessarily need. But I was glad that the old girl, who has a lot of life in her yet, was sleeping inside last night and not on the cold snow. I too was projecting my views of comfort on her. I’m anthropomorphizing, yes, but she was cozy. As was I, in these overheated buildings. It may be 20 degrees or 20 below outside, but it’s a toasty 75 degrees on the inside, so be sure to pack your t-shirts when traveling to Barrow.
After awaking to a dark morning and snow flurries, I picked up my dear friend, and plaintiff in the Alaska Atmospheric Trust (ATL) case, Nelson Kanuk, from the airport. We toured the Ilisagvik College, ate burgers in the cafeteria, and presented the TRUST Campaign to a group of staff, faculty, and students of the college. We showed the ever-inspiring Stories of TRUST: Calling for Climate Recovery films of Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska and Nelson shared his sad news that his family home has indeed been lost due to the permafrost melt, erosion, and flooding that prevented them from staying where they lived in the village of Kipnuk. Katherine Dolma, co-plaintiff with Nelson, joined us to share her story about the melting glaciers, pine-beetle killed trees, and erosion happening near her home in Homer. She inspired the crowd with her story of starting the first recycling program in Homer. She is one of a handful of youth to win a presidential award for her service work, just as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez did earlier this year. The Barrow residents asked her to start a recycling program here, where everything now goes to the dump. Glass, paper, cardboard, aluminum, tin, plastic, Styrofoam . . . it all goes to the dump, the new one, because the old one has been filled and closed. Large barges come to town regularly to bring cars, building materials, equipment, goods of all kinds, and they leave empty. The recyclables do not get taken to recycling facilities because it would cost the Borough money to recycle their waste. When no one pays, the earth pays. Wildlife pays. Water pays. Air pays. The future will pay. It’s being left for another day.
I love telling people about the Public Trust Doctrine, its ancient origins from that Roman Emperor named Justinian, and it’s very practical and logical role in our system of law. The Public Trust Doctrine transcends legal complexities that have become the norm. People get it. They like it. Of course we would protect essential natural resources that we need for our survival. Of course the government can’t allow anyone to irreparably harm those resources, least of all itself. Of course we would pass our natural heritage down to future generations. Of course . . . it’s not being done.
After sharing our story of ATL, our new friends, Matt and Shannon, took us on a tour that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. They showed us first-hand just how much our government studies the human-caused global climate crisis. The tour crystallized for me how much we have studied this crisis over the last 30 years and how little government has done to protect us from it. Knowledge and science are half the battle, but law and action are the other half.
I wish I could do justice to this 3-hour window into the dichotomy of Barrow’s experience. One moment, I witness an ancient practice of a resilient people who have lived for generations in a harsh environment where their primary food source was from the ocean in the form of marine mammals, like whales, seals, and walruses along with occasional fish. The descendants of the original Inupiaq can now go to the AC, the local grocery store, and buy most food you could buy in the lower 48, for three times the price, but it’s there, transported by plane and barge. In contrast, a whale harvest does not exacerbate climate change. The weekly delivery of groceries from around the world does.
And while the people of Barrow share communally in the bounty of a successful whale hunt, the specialized monitoring equipment at the NOAA observatory uses modern technology to track the destruction of the atmospheric resource from the modern industrialization and the consequent carbon emissions. Hunting and butchering whales. Only a mile from one of the most important observatories of the atmospheric resource on earth. Barrow is a collision of incredible scientific data collection borne of the modern world and ancient human survival in harsh conditions. It is also ground zero for climate impacts with changing sea ice conditions, melting permafrost, later winters, and early melting sea ice in summer. In Point Lay, another village in the North Slope Borough, walruses (also a food source for many) are dangerously stranded on an island because of the absence of sea ice. Sinkholes in the melting tundra in Point Lay are threatening infrastructure.
Here, the people worry about their ability to continue their subsistence hunting because of the unstable ice. In fact, this spring, the Inupiat in Barrow had their latest seasonal whale harvest ever recorded. They had tried through the spring to hunt and were unsuccessful because of the early receding ice. Fearing they might not harvest at all, they finally took two older and larger whales in June. Rumor has it that they killed larger whales than usual, and later discovered they were 150 and 200 years old. I had no idea a whale could live so long. The long-lived genes of those two whales are now gone. And the Inupiat would have preferred to eat the less tough and fresh meat of a younger whale. But global warming and melting ice interfered.
Even though the bowhead whale population seems stable and growing right now, which allows for the legally permitted 20 strikes on bowheads as part of the subsistence hunt, the change in the whales’ food source as ocean acidification threatens the krill they feed on could change their fate in the coming decades. No one loves the bowhead whales more than the Inupiat. They would do anything to protect them. We heard from many in Barrow that they hope Nelson and Katherine and the other plaintiffs win this case. They see what is happening to their land and ice. And yet the North Slope Borough relies on money that comes from the oil and gas industry. They bring money and jobs to the North Slope. These are complicated questions implicating money, public services, standards of living, food, subsistence, ways of life, progress, and posterity. There are no simple answers.
But there are simple answers for the Supreme Court of Alaska to address. At the oral argument today, in a packed auditorium at Barrow High School, Justices Fabe, Winfree, Maassen, and Bolger heard Brad De Noble argue on behalf of youth that the atmosphere is a legally protected resource under the Alaska Constitution and that they must hear Nelson and Katherine’s case, while the State’s attorney argued that Nelson’s loss of his house was not an adequate harm to give him the right to go to court, and that the court cannot make any decisions implicating climate change because it is reserved for the legislature. Since when did climate change become only a political issue? Perhaps since big oil, big coal, and big gas decided they could buy politicians, deceive the American public for decades about climate change, all to increase the money in their pocketbooks, at the expense of the future of our kids. Ultimately the Court will decide whether the case can be heard and whether the atmosphere must be protected by the State. Brad, concluded his compelling argument to the Court by saying:
The Alaska constitution guarantees these young appellants, in fact all citizens of the Alaska, a decision from this court that preserves this great land and its resources, and secures and transmits to succeeding generations equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law.
Everyone sees the impacts of climate change here in Barrow. It is accepted, common knowledge. Ironically, as we left the high school courtroom today, the icicles hanging from the school were melting, the sun was shining through the clouds and temperatures were above freezing. It felt warm. I don’t know how unusual that is for early October, but it was unnerving. And so we did what anyone might do after one of the most important oral arguments of your career and when the sun is shining in Barrow—we took the polar plunge! Nelson, Katherine, Brenda (Katherine’s mom), Brad, and I all jumped in the Arctic Ocean. (Brad, our fearless leader, dove in head-first! You have to be bold to do this work and that dive spoke volumes). “Cold” does not begin to describe the water, but it felt necessary. Sometimes you have to do something a little crazy to get perspective and remind yourself that since we live on this planet for such a short time, we might as well live it well, and leave it well for the next generation.
I hope it was worth the carbon. For the sake of my kids and yours, and especially theirs. May it be worth it’s price.
And as for Brad, our fearless attorney, he’s off to search for polar bears in the dark of the morning with wildlife photographer John Tidwell. I hope he finds a glimpse of one at dawn. And I hope when his 14-month old twins are his age, they too will be able to go in search of polar bears in their home state of Alaska, and that they will find them healthy and abundant.
Katherine and Nelson are back to their senior year in high school and freshman year in college, respectively, and undoubtedly they will continue having an enormous impact as they share their stories and pursue their legal remedy of government action on climate change. They are the future of our nation, and because of them and their light, I feel hopeful.
Thanks to all of the people of Barrow who made our brief stay there memorable and impactful—those we met and those who touched our lives without knowing us. And to Brad, Nelson, and Katherine, thank you.
To see some of the press coverage from the oral argument check out these links:
Check out TRUST Alaska, the short documentary featuring Nelson Kanuk and his climate change story.
And to provide your support to Nelson, Katherine and the other youth plaintiffs, please consider making a donation to Our Children’s Trust. No amount is too small and it will help them continue their advocacy, and help us continue to support their legal effort. We run lean and strong and your contribution will go a long way!